Suddenly the tail lights of the car in front of me are brighter and closer than just a few seconds before. Instantly, I moved my foot to the brake pedal. I did it automatically. I did it without conscious thought. It’s a habit. It works to protect me. It’s a useful habit.
When I brush my teeth in the morning, I always begin with the lower back tooth on the right side. I don’t waste any time or effort in deciding where to begin this daily activity. I could do it in my sleep. It’s a habit. All my teeth eventually get brushed. It’s a useful habit.
Why is it, then, that we usually think of habits as ‘bad’? After all, a habit is just a response to a situation or stimulant that is automatic. Our brains are wonderfully efficient. When the brain observes us doing the same thing over and over again, it decides to take the action away from the big executive function and send it down to the basal ganglia. As a result, the work gets done, and less energy is expended. That can be quite beneficial and very useful.
Of course, there are habits that are wasteful—of our time, our energy, even our intentions. Letting myself be distracted when my phone tells me I just received a text message and I reach for it automatically, I waste a precious moment with my family at dinner. It’s not intrinsically bad, but it is wasteful.
If I reach for that text message while I’m writing a blog, it disrupts my thinking. I have to take some time to get back into the rhythm of what I was writing. It wastes time. I may even lose a great way of expressing an idea that hadn’t yet had time to get to my fingers on the keyboard, and more time is lost. It’s a wasteful habit.
So Much is Written About Breaking Bad Habits
There’s a lot written on how to break a bad habit. That’s probably because it takes so much energy to break a habit, and it makes us uncomfortable as well. I also think that the word ‘bad’ is not adequate. It puts a sense of guilt on us to break it. We feel guilty or even shameful of the habit we are trying to break. No wonder it’s so exhausting to do so.
To break that habit, we have to be alert enough so that we can interrupt the automatic action and substitute a new action (including simply not doing the old). That means that we have to engage the executive function of our brains using up more energy. It’s hard to do, especially in the long term. Moreover, there is not always an immediate benefit beyond a fleeting sense of satisfaction, followed immediately by a sense of disappointment that we didn’t get our usual comfort from completing the habitual activity.
Some New Language
I believe it is time to think of habits not as good or bad but as useful or wasteful. This allows you to decide for yourself the usefulness or wastefulness of the habit to you personally. What’s wasteful to me may be useful to you. But when you are the one who has defined it for yourself, you are the decision maker. Any guilt or shame you apply to it is from you, not from outside yourself. You can feel in control—a place where you decide your next action.
With this new sense of agency, it’s time to think about creating a new habit instead of breaking the old one. If you see a habit is wasteful to you, think about creating a new, useful habit that might distract you from or substitute for the old. Let me give you an example. I loved having a little snack at night while watching a movie. Maybe it is a holdover from eating popcorn when I used to go to the movies. One night, instead of grabbing a snack, I stopped in front of the closet where I keep the snacks and chose not to open the door. To give myself another action to substitute, I opened the fridge, took out a bottle of seltzer water, poured a glass, added a slice of lemon, and returned to the movie. It was just enough different to let me know I was doing something different. It was just enough the same to satisfy the desire to be doing something with my hands, my mouth, and my taste buds.
Now that was an easy substitution for me. Yet, it took time and repetition to get to the point that I stopped going to the closet and went straight for the seltzer. There was nothing bad about eating a small snack when I watched a movie, but I decided that it was wasteful for me to add calories late at night when I wanted to maintain my weight.
It takes the same time to develop a habit even with interruptions.
Research has shown that it takes on average 66 days to form a new behavior that is automatic. That means that you are uncomfortable for what can be seen as a fairly long time. But consider that it is eight weeks, the usual length of most specials that extend over the course of a few weeks. When you get hooked by one of these shows, you long for it to be longer when they end. If only the trials of breaking a habit became so welcome.
The same research highlighted another finding that is very exciting. The research revealed that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, if you mess up every now and then, you only need to return to the chosen behavior, and the habit-forming continues as if it was never interrupted. Each day is a new start except that the body keeps track from the original start. So much for the guilt of making a single mistake.
Substitute useful habits for wasteful ones.
Stop thinking about habits as good or bad. Start appreciating the useful habits that help you in your life every day. Stop thinking about breaking bad habits. Start looking for ways to substitute useful habits for wasteful ones.
 Phillippa Lally (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world, European Journal of Social Psychology.